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Citizens group demands changes to Portsmouth solar ordinance

On Monday, Town Council to hold ‘re-do’ of earlier public hearing some residents say they didn’t know about

By Jim McGaw
Posted 11/19/20

PORTSMOUTH — Just look at that unsightly sea of metal and glass going up along West Main Road just south of Melville School, they say. Just how many more of those solar farms do you want …

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Citizens group demands changes to Portsmouth solar ordinance

On Monday, Town Council to hold ‘re-do’ of earlier public hearing some residents say they didn’t know about

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Just look at that unsightly sea of metal and glass going up along West Main Road just south of Melville School, they say. Just how many more of those solar farms do you want to see in Portsmouth?

That’s a question being asked by members of a new citizens group, Portsmouth Residents for Responsible Solar, made up of about 40 residents of the Hilltop Road area. Members insist they’re not against renewable energy, but they want solar arrays to be developed in a responsible and transparent fashion, with plenty of citizen input. The goal, they say, should be making sure each proposal fits with the town’s rural character, does not lower property values, and is in symmetry with the rights of solar developers and their property owners.

Members will be out in full force on Monday, Nov. 23, when the council holds what basically amounts to a “re-do” of a May 11 public hearing, when a new solar ordinance was passed unanimously with little comment. Many residents who live near the site of a commercial solar farm proposed for the other side of West Main Road — not far from the aforementioned U.S. Navy array that did not require town oversight — say they didn’t learn of the May 11 hearing until it was too late.

David Croston of Sweet Farm Road, the group’s chief spokesman, said neighbors found out over the Columbus Day weekend about the proposed solar farm, which would be located opposite Melville School. “At that time, our ears perked up. We started doing some homework and we found out about the May 11 meeting. We were already behind the eight ball,” Mr. Croston said.

They’ve even questioned the legality of the May 11 hearing, charging it was not properly advertised as required by the state open meetings law. The hearing was originally scheduled for March 23, but was canceled due to the COVID pandemic.

According to Town Council minutes, the council opened the public hearing on April 6 (by then the panel was meeting remotely via the Zoom app), but then postponed it to May 11. On that date, the council voted to approve the ordinance, following a favorable opinion by the Planning Board. 

Mr. Croston was able to dig up three legal notices in the Newport Daily News that properly advertised the March 23 hearing. However, he said the town never re-advertised for the rescheduled hearing for either April 6 or May 11.

On Oct. 26, when the council voted to advertise to reopen the hearing Nov. 23 upon a request by Mr. Croston, Town Solicitor Kevin Gavin and council members insisted nothing untoward had taken place. On Tuesday, council member Keith Hamilton said members agreed to re-open the hearing “out of an abundance of caution” so that more citizens could participate.

While a “re-do” of a public hearing is somewhat unusual, Mr. Hamilton said “everything’s unusual” during COVID. 

“If someone had said, ‘Hey, I was out of town for that meeting and I want you to move it,’ (the hearing date) probably wouldn’t be changed,” he said. But in this case, the council made an exception because a large enough number of people raised concerns over not being able to comment, he said.

Why an ordinance?

The town’s solar ordinance was written after two large solar arrays in Portsmouth were rejected over the past three years. The R.I. Superior Court ruled against an array off Jepson Lane in 2017, saying it was an industrial project not suited for residential-zoned land. In 2018, the Zoning Board of Review voted down a nine-acre project on West Main Road, saying it failed to meet land-use requirements. 

Attorney Cort Chappell, who has represented developers hoping to bring various solar projects to town, originally drafted the solar ordinance as an amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance. He argued it was necessary because Superior Court decisions held that specific uses such as solar farms need to be addressed individually and be included in a town’s zoning ordinance in order to be considered by building inspectors and town boards through the application process. 

Members of Portsmouth Residents for Responsible Solar, however, say the current solar ordinance strongly favors developers over abutters’ rights.

One of their biggest concerns is the ordinance’s minimum setback requirement of 50 feet, with no density requirement.

“A 50-foot buffer, with 30-foot vegetated buffers — and that’s cumulative — is the bare minimum requirement of any ordinance we’ve seen in Massachusetts and Rhode Island,” said Mr. Croston. “Basically they can roughly take up 90 percent of their lot as long as they meet their setback requirements, which is 50 feet.”

He pointed to Exeter, which he said re-wrote its own solar ordinance “eight times” and enforces a 200-foot buffer. “They have one of the most progressive statues, that we should emulate,” said Mr. Croston.

Mr. Hamilton countered that comparing Portsmouth to Exeter, which has many more acres of open land, is like “comparing Providence to New York City.” It would be nearly impossible, he said, for most solar arrays to be approved in Portsmouth if 200-foot setbacks were required.

Perhaps such a large setback is more suitable in Exeter than in Portsmouth, Mr. Croston acknowledged, but surely a “happy medium” that passes a “basic IQ test” could be enforced locally.

Homes devalued?

Another concern centers around property values. The group cited a recent University of Rhode Island study that found prices of homes within a mile of a solar installation declined by 1.7 percent, and homes within a 10th of a mile went down by 7 percent. Direct abutters were not stipulated, but the group surmises their home values would be reduced by more than 10 percent. (Corey Lang, one of the authors of the study, is expected to speak on behalf of the neighbors Monday night.)

“There needs to be more consideration on not only the immediate impacts but the future impacts. (The solar ordinance) totally fails to consider the potential property value losses, the tax base losses, when you consider any of the areas around a potential solar farm,” said Bruce Fay, another member of the group who lives on Sweet Farm Road.

Other members of the group said they’re worried about a proliferation of large solar arrays popping up around town, especially on the west side. If the solar farm proposed for the site across from Melville School gets approved, along with the Navy farm “it changes the character of the whole of the town,” said Dave Howard, of Marial Rose Drive. While the town had no say in the development of the Navy solar array, he said, “that was nice open parkland, and now it’s gone.”

Another member of the group, Robyn Younkin of West Passage Drive, said the town’s Comprehensive Community Plan dictates that Portsmouth’s landscape should be “rationally developed” to match the town’s character. “I don’t see how putting one solar farm after another on West Main Road is balanced and does anything for the character of the town,” she said.

Lark Roderigues, also of West Passage Drive, pointed to the Navy solar array as an example of what other large developments could look like. “People will be more aware of how unattractive it is when it’s in your face,” she said. “Once (the developers) leave, they’re leaving you what you have to look at.”

Citizen input

Mr. Hamilton said he understands where members of the citizens group are coming from. “They’re seeing what happened on the Navy property, which we have no control over. They feel aggrieved,” he said. 

However, he disagrees with statements on the group’s website that claim citizens are being left out of the review process.

“They do have input under the special-use permit process. It’s not done by right. You can put solar panels on your own roof by right, but you can’t put them in your yard by right,” he said.

On May 11, in fact, the council voted to amend the draft ordinance so that solar arrays proposed for R-40 and R-60 zones be required to go through a special-use permitting process, which gives abutters a chance to be heard.

And while he agrees the Navy solar array “is not pretty,” Mr. Hamilton pointed out that both the Navy and the State of Rhode Island have set goals to increase renewable energy programs.

“This is classic ‘not in my backyard,’” he said. “I want my cell phone to work, but I don’t want a tower in my backyard. I want renewable energy, but I don’t want a solar farm near me.”

Ms. Roderigues and other members of Portsmouth Residents for Responsible Solar disagree. “I don’t think anyone here is against solar, but it needs to be put in areas where it doesn’t take away,” she said.

“We can be pro-solar in Portsmouth while maintaining the integrity of our town,” added Shelly Nicholas, who lives on Marial Rose Drive. “I’m totally pro-solar; I’m for it.”

Mr. Croston agreed, saying “a solar farm could be our best neighbor,” but they need to be properly screened and vetted through environmental reviews. 

(The council) can do better, and we can help them do better,” Mr. Croston said.

To learn more about Monday's meeting and how to participate, view the agenda here.

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